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The Punch: Leadership change should spark primary rethink

29 Jun 2010

First Published on The Punch 29th June 2010

The Australian public’s reaction to last week’s execution of their Prime Minister came in two courses. The first: “Don’t break the eggs!”  The second: “Nice omelette!”

By chance, I was observing focus groups on the night Rudd was rolled and the general feeling was one of surprise, anger, even outage, “it’s our job to throw out a leader, not their’s”, a sense that something fundamentally undemocratic was occurring.

But more remarkable than this emotional reaction, was the fact that it was so fleeting, having vented people who ready to move on and embrace our first female Prime Minister.

This strange dynamic is backed in this week’s Essential Report, which finds 40 per cent of voters disapprove of the takeover, yet finds just 24 per cent say they are less likely to vote Labor because of it.

Source: Essential Media
Source: Essential Media

In fact, as with all the major polls it appears the removal of Kevin Rudd has increased Labor ‘s primary vote and improved its two party preferred status. So is it a case of mock outrage or pure complacency that drives these competing responses?

I think it actually speaks to something more profound –  a deep confusion in our political system, a Parliamentary democracy that masquerades as Presidential politics.

On the one hand we elect local representatives who in turn elect their Parliamentary leader. But come election time, it is the leader that defines the Party, with their personal stories and cheesy grins taking centre stage.

On one level there is something brutally honest about a political Party asserting their right to take the most popular leader to headline for them at election time – after all its their jobs on the line.

The problem lies in the double message they are sending the public; that ‘Kevin 07’ is our guy and we are his team, but we will neck him if we have to.

The alternate approach would be to go the whole hog and give the people a say in who should be their leader in a more structured way than opinion polling. The US system of primaries allows all registered voters to endorse the candidate a major party takes to an election, meaning candidates have to prove their appeal to their base before they go to the masses. Even incumbents are open to challenge.

Of course there are downsides – the cost of US elections means only the rich or highly organised can play and the process takes time and energy.

But it does give people a greater say in who their leaders are and forces any would be leader to earn the mantle, not just do the deal. And as our numbers show – if this had been the case last week there is little doubt we would still be celebrating our first female Prime Minister come election day.